When my father was dying of lung cancer, my mother, Alice, seemed to be in denial. In retrospect, she was in Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t take in and process the fact that he was terminal. I was with them in my father’s hospital room, a few days after the surgery that removed the cancerous lobes of his lung, when the oncologist shared the pathology report. With tact and compassion, the doctor said that his pathology report was a death sentence. I heard her. But for my mother, the doctor’s information just floated away. There was no way to stick this idea—that soon there would be no more Dave—to something else she already knew so that she could hang onto it. It’s kind of like trying to make a drawing of nothing—no frame of reference makes it hard.
I was another story altogether. A hyperactive, accident-prone, wild child, I had always tired my mother out. Young motherhood for her was a time of scarcity: She ran out of time, of energy, of money, of patience. She held on to this frame of reference until years later when I came to visit, to help my father recover (her view) or die gracefully (my view), when it registered that I had changed. She hugged me tight at the end of a visit. I’ve been taller than her since sixth grade. “Dana, you were such a help. I don’t what we’d do without you!” Then she pulled away, looked up at me, shook her head in disbelief and said, “And you used to be so annoying!” I’ve always been a sucker for sweetness.